Who Fears Death + The Book of Phoenix
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I knew little about this book beforehand, didn't even read the dust-jacket blurb, so I was initially confused as to the timeline. Due to the ritual "magic" implied I though it might be in the past, or maybe in an alternate fantasy world, but the first chapter ends with the narrator, Onyesonwu, mentioning laptop computers, so my assumption changed to present, or maybe very near future. It turns out it's the far future, in a post-apocalyptic Africa, although I'm unclear as to the exact location. A wikipedia article says Sudan, but several Igbo terms are used, which is a language spoken in Nigeria, and the author is of Nigerian heritage. Onyesonwu is Igbo for "who fears death." Several towns are mentioned that do not come up in a search, indicating they are not current, but rather fictitious, established later in this futuristic scenario. Another term used, to describe both Onyesonwu and a sorcerer under whom she trains, is "Eshu," a trickster god of the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria. However, the two tribes prominent in this narrative are fictitious. Onyesonwu's mother, Najeeba, is Okeke, a tribe subservient to the Nuru. Her father, Daib, is a Nuru chieftain who raped her mother in an attack on an Okeke village in the western part of the country. Perhaps this is meant to be in Sudan, since this storyline was inspired by similar incidents of rape by Arab men against Black African women during the Darfur Conflict.
The Okeke are dark-skinned, the Nuru have a lighter complexion, with Onyesonwu described as having skin the color of sand, but with darker freckles. She is an "Ewu," a product of rape, and thus shunned by both tribes. Najeeba is able to escape into the desert to the east, wandering for over five years, until a premonition tells her it is time for Onyesonwu to go to a school. They eventually make it to Jwahir, a larger Okeke settlement far from the violence in the west. While Najeeba spends her days trying to sell cactus candy and other things, Onyesonwu wanders the market square, usually being ridiculed and rejected because she is Ewu. One person who does not shun her is the town's premier blacksmith, Fadil Ogundimu. Not only do they become good friends, Fadil eventually marries Najeeba, creating a strong and supportive family for Onyesonwu. She also develops close friendships with three other girls at her school, as well as befriending an older boy, Mwita, who turns out to be another refugee without family.
There are several scenes that should probably come with a trigger warning, starting with when Najeeba tells Onyesonwu of the rape that led to her conception, and later as Onyesonwu reveals that information to her friends. Another is the Eleventh Year Rite, which Najeeba's tribe had rejected many years before, but which was still practiced in Jwahir. Even though she knows her mother does not approve, Onyesonwu sneaks out at night to join her three girlfriends to be initiated into adulthood, in a ceremony of female genital mutilation. The trauma of this event triggers one of the first manifestations of Onyesonwu's magical abilities, yet she does not fully understand the transformation, and doesn't speak of it, even though she later finds out her friends witnessed the strange event as well. Another tragic event at the age of sixteen propels Onyesonwu to seek out Aro, the local sorcerer, for training. He initially rejects her, thinking the Eleventh Year Rite would have robbed her of any magical potential, but she is adamant and keeps pestering him, and he later relents when she passes an initiation, something that Mwita had failed to do.
All of this happens in the first third of the book; there's so much more to the story, but I'm hesitant to reveal too much. I will say that Onyesonwu is haunted by visions of her real father, whom she learns is also a powerful sorcerer. She fears he wants to either destroy her or to control her magic. She proves to be a receptive student of Aro's teachings, yet at the same time is strong-willed and impetuous, disregarding some of his warnings. She and Mwita, along with her three school friends, set off on a trek to the west to confront her father, rather than wait for him to make his move. There are times when she is sympathetic, others when her actions seem too rash and propelled by rage. On the one hand she accepts the help of friends, on the other she acts as if she has to do everything on her own and in her own way. She's a fascinating character, but also a frustrating one. One factor in why society rejects the Ewu is the notion that anyone created through an act of violence is destined to live a life of violence. Quite a bit of what Onyesonwu does seems to validate that notion. I'm still puzzled about the ending, but I know I'll re-read this one of these days, and after reading the prequel that conviction is even stronger.
Before starting either of these books, I inquired of the author if it mattered in which order they were read. She said she had written them out of order, and there was no reason not to read them out of order. I decided to go with publication order, and I think that was the right choice. The two cover images might look similar, but they are of two different characters, separated by hundreds of years. One thing I've yet to mention about Onyesonwu is she was a shape-shifter, one of her most common transformations was as a vulture. In one of the later chapters, before she confronted her father, she and her friends took refuge from a severe storm in a cave, which they found to be full of old computers and other tech devices. The opening of the prequel novel, set hundreds of years before that, sees a man named Sunuteel finding that same cave, and those old computers are already there. One of the devices mysteriously transfers a file to his own portable, and for hours he listens to The Book of Phoenix, which recounts events that led up to the apocalypse which very nearly wiped out all of humanity.
Phoenix is an ABO, an "accelerated biological organism," created through genetic manipulation by an organization known as LifeGen Technologies, but which she refers to as Big Eye (since they watch her all the time). She was born to a volunteer host mother, but was taken from her almost immediately. She matures rapidly, and in just a couple of years appears to be about 40. She is kept in a secure facility known as Tower 7 on the island of Manhattan. LifeGen has other facilites around the world, the few others mentioned include Tower 1 in Miami and Tower 4 on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. It seems apparent Phoenix was designed as a weapon. Her body can heat up and release bursts of radiation, and in extreme instances can set her surroundings on fire, even burning her own body to ash. But as with the mythical Phoenix, she somehow can regenerate. By the end of her story, we know of at least four instances of her death and rebirth. Thus, this duology is science fiction, although tinged with a bit of fantasy. It is always wise to remember Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
In the first book, there was a rumor that the Nuru were possibly descendant's of an alien race. Inside Tower 7 is an enormous tree, known as The Backbone, which has grown from the lobby upwards, and holes had to be created in each successive floor to allow the continual growth. It is believed to be of alien origin as well, and after Phoenix has managed an escape, she discovers a box with a large seed inside, and it appears that box was presented to her by the tree itself. Is it the seed for another Backbone? Phoenix doesn't know, but is compelled by the seed to journey to a land across the ocean. She is able to do so by flying, since shortly after her escape, wings sprout from her shoulder blades, possibly generated by her proximity to the seed. She realized the importance of the seed, and when she lands in Ghana she buries it for safekeeping. Her respite there is short-lived, as LifeGen tracks her down, and she allows them to carry her back to America, although she has an ulterior motive in letting them think she is their captive again. There was another winged creature that escaped Tower 7 at the same time, who appears to Phoenix several times throughout the story. Through his influence she realizes she has the power to "slip" through both time and space. Utilizing this power she is able to help others escape Tower 1, and later she and two friends attempt to rescue others from Tower 4.
I realize some might think I've revealed too much of the plot, but trust me, this is just the bare minimum needed to begin to unravel the tale. This saga is about the power of myth, of how history is remembered, forgotten, and reshaped by subsequent generations. After Sunuteel has heard Phoenix's story, he fears she is still alive, possibly observing him even as he learns her story. He recalls something a teacher once told him, of how after a story is written, it is in the hands of the reader, the writer is dead and irrelevant. After about a month of thinking on Phoenix's story, Sunuteel decides to rewrite it, and thus The Great Book is created. This sacred text was referenced several times in the first book, supposedly handed down by the goddess Ani. It included portions of Phoenix's tale, but Sunuteel fabricated much of it. Can we be sure he has reported Phoenix's story as he heard it, or was some of it fabricated as well? If not, my interpretation of Onyesonwu's powers is that someone eventually uncovered the seed Phoenix had buried, and its properties effected the alteration of the DNA of subsequent generations. Not everyone manifested magical powers, but Onyesonwu later learned that more did than she originally thought, including her mother, Aro of course, Mwita with his powers of healing, and perhaps in a limited sense, even her adoptive father, Fadil.
I may be wrong about some of my suppositions, but that's okay. As with any myth, there is more than just the surface details, and I'm sure it will take several readings to absorb them all. This one is rich with the nuance of memorable characters and the clash of cultures, the creation of heroes and the nobility of sacrifice. Phoenix knew her DNA was derived from multiple individuals, but she suspects most were of African descent. Even though she was a miracle of science that had no historical connection to any culture, she did feel an affinity for the people of Africa. It is the birthplace of humanity, and just as Phoenix continually recreated herself, so will the people of Africa after every upheaval of civilization. If my guess about Onyesonwu's eventual destiny is correct, her future, and the future of her people and of the world, will be glorious.
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